Adjusting to At-Home Learning: Practical Tips for Parents and Kids

In the world of COVID-19, distance learning has become the norm
Child getting help with school work from adult

With the COVID-19 pandemic pushing many schools to opt for online learning this fall, many parents are left wondering — how is this all going to work?

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When you already have the responsibilities of holding down a job and running a household on your plate — not to mention living through a global public health crisis — an added task as big as facilitating your child’s education online can feel overwhelming.

Plus, not going back to school in-person will be a big change for your child, too.

Let’s start by taking a collective deep breath. This is not an ideal situation, and it’s important to give yourself grace and forgiveness for not being able to make everything work perfectly, says pediatric psychologist Emily Mudd, PhD.

However, there are some steps you and your child can take to set yourselves up for success and manage stress in the world of virtual learning.

How to get kids into a school mindset at home

One of the most important things you can do to help your child get into learning mode at home is to create a designated space where they can do their school work. “This will help them differentiate when it’s home or play time, and when it’s learning time,” Dr. Mudd says.

Don’t have space for a desk setup? Here’s where you can get creative. If your child is comfortable pulling up a chair to an end table or nightstand, then, voila, there’s a workspace. It could also be on the floor or in a beanbag chair, if they’re comfortable there. Let your child personalize their space, and keep the supplies they need close by.

If possible, Dr. Mudd recommends having a second space where schoolwork happens. It can be tough for kids to sit in one spot all day, so it’s nice to have a backup location for a change of scenery.

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Keep a schedule, but make it flexible

“Children thrive on structure and routine,” Dr. Mudd says. “The predictability helps them feel safe and understand what is coming next.”

Create a schedule with blocks of time for school work, physical activity and meals. But you don’t need to plan out their days hour by hour, she says. Maybe there are three school-related tasks that need to be done by lunch time. Let your child choose which one they want to do first.

“Children are motivated by choices and feeling like they have a say in how the day goes,” Dr. Mudd explains. “So when you can, allow your children to have input into the schedule.”

Keep them motivated + on track

If your child isn’t the best at staying focused on school work instead of, say, YouTube, there are a few things you can try.

For younger children, Dr. Mudd suggests setting up some kind of reward system. “Most children are not intrinsically motivated to complete school work. It may be boring or difficult to them, so having external motivation is going to be important,” she says.

It could be that they get a sticker or a check mark for every activity they complete during the day. When they reach a certain amount of activities completed, they get to choose a reward — like deciding what’s for dinner, picking the family movie or spending extra time with Mom or Dad.

Kids might also benefit from using visual timers, like an hourglass or a countdown on their phone. This way, they can see how much time they have left to focus before they can move on to another task.

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Lastly, Dr. Mudd recommends switching up the delivery of the lesson plans based on your child’s style of learning. If your child learns best by doing, for example, move math class into the kitchen and work on measuring ingredients while you’re cooking.

“Being able to tailor a lesson to your child’s learning style is one of the unique benefits of doing school at home,” she says.

What if you’re also working from home?

If you’re pulling double-duty trying to work from home while also making sure your kids are getting an education, the goal might just be to get through the day.

We get it. Here’s how Dr. Mudd recommends balancing your time and stress:

  • Involve kids in setting boundaries: If you didn’t work remotely pre-pandemic, your child is probably used to having you be available to them when you’re at home. So this change doesn’t come naturally. Let them know when you are and aren’t available to help them. “If you have a special workplace in your home, have your child make a sign that says, ‘Do not disturb,’ and have them hang it on the door,” Dr. Mudd suggests. “They’re more likely to abide by that sign if they made it and hung it up for you.”
  • Find little moments of happiness: “We know from research that happy employees are more productive at work,” Dr. Mudd notes. So when you’re feeling extra stressed, give yourself permission to run around with your child outside for 15 minutes. If you return to work in a happier headspace, you’ll be more productive.
  • Use the time whenever you can find it: If your child will sleep in, let them do so and use that time to get a jump-start on your work day.
  • Don’t beat yourself up over screen time: While pediatricians normally encourage a limit on the amount of time your child spend with their devices, it’s a different situation when online school is the norm. “It’s OK to make peace with screen time right now,” says Dr. Mudd. “The important thing is to balance it with non-screen time. So instead of having a specific number of hours or minutes of screen time that’s allowed, just be sure to have more non-screen time. If your child spends an hour doing online schooling, then have them play an hour outside or do something else that does not involve a screen.”

If you find yourself frequently butting heads with your child about school work, schedules or boundaries, allow yourself to take a breather. “This is a marathon, not a sprint,” Dr. Mudd says. “Take a break to re-center yourself and let your child take some space for themselves, too.”

Finally, if you’re consistently dealing with technology woes, or if your child is struggling with the curriculum, don’t hesitate to reach out to your school. Unlike in the spring when schools abruptly closed to curb the spread of COVID-19, they’ve now had time to prepare for the reality of a virtual semester and may have ideas or resources that can help.

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